UCLA has been a Jekyll and Hyde team all season. When they play well, they can play extremely well and beat or even dominate good teams. When they play poorly, they can play horrendously, make some of the dumbest decisions of all time and lose to anybody.
It’s only fitting that in the NCAA tournament, we saw both Jekyll and Hyde in the same game. Only this time, both of them were amped up to their most extreme. UCLA literally played better than they have played all season, and worse than they have ever played all season, in the same exact game.
Somehow, neither “the kind-hearted Dr. Jekyll” nor “the sinister Mr. Hyde” seem like extreme enough personalities to describe the Bruins’ dichotomy and performance. No, this was more along the lines of Gandhi taking a potion that periodically transformed him back and forth into Jeffrey Dahmer.
The good: UCLA got out to its biggest halftime lead of the season (other than one or two early creampuff teams, but an even bigger lead than in some of those games), 42-24. They got out to a 23 point lead with 8 minutes left. Tyler Honeycutt looked unstoppable at times. Joshua Smith looked like a complete beast in the low post at times. They absolutely shut down Kalin Lucas and MSU’s perimeter offense. This was the big dance, baby, and UCLA was playing its best game of the season. At times.
The bad: Idiotic unforced turnovers. Missed free throws. Not just a few. For stretches, it seemed like these things occurred in every possession. Horrendous defensive rebounding that led to multiple second chance points for the Spartans, which more often than not they capitalized on. Terrible perimeter defense. There were times when the Bruins displayed less basketball IQ than the Washington Generals. This was the big dance, and UCLA was playing its worst basketball of the season and was about to become a laughingstock.
The ugly: Every single player on Utah State. Wait, sorry, I turned to wrong game for a second.
You know, I was somewhat preparing for UCLA to lose to Michigan State. Although UCLA was the higher seed, MSU was favored in Vegas and UCLA had to travel much further, so I went in expecting a loss to some degree. It’s not UCLA has a chance at the Final Four or anything anyway, so although a tourney win would be nice, I thought a loss wouldn’t be terribly important or memorable in the grand scheme of college basketball history.
Well, the way the game played out changed all that.
UCLA almost committed one of the biggest choke jobs in the history of college basketball.
UCLA had a 23 point lead on MSU with 8 minutes left. They had a 10 point lead with one minute left. And they almost blew it.
The Bruins were THIS close to becoming the laughingstock of the tournament. I came in not expecting much from this young team’s tournament appearance, but to become the team that committed one of the biggest (if not the biggest) March Madness chokejobs in recent history, that would be unbearable. If MSU came all the way back to win it on a last second shot, that shot would be repeated forever and ever in March Madness highlights and commercials for decades to come (sort of like UCLA/Gonzaga in 2006, which UCLA was on the other end of. The stakes were higher for UCLA/Gonzaga since that was in the Sweet 16, but MSU’s comeback was by more points and started later in the game)
The last 40 seconds of this game seemed like they took hours. A three by Michigan State. A Bruin gets fouled and misses both free throws. Another shot by Michigan State. Rinse, repeat. Complete agony to watch.
Thankfully, that crisis was averted. Barely. UCLA played good defense for two out of MSU’s final three possessions to finally win 78-76. They advanced. Still, the fact remains that the other team came back from a 23 point lead to only be down one and only lose by two.
You would think that avoiding such an epically and historically embarassing loss would result in a huge feeling of relief at the end. I suppose Bruin fans do feel that, to some degree. Had the game been a close back and forth contest with the Bruins prevailing in the end, it would have been a situation for relief and joy. But even though the game resulted in an NCAA tournament victory, there’s just so much embarrassment and shame at the way it all played out that it’s impossible to feel elated.
Of course, all of these woes would be healed 100% and no one would even remember what happened in this game if UCLA somehow manages to conjure up enough consistency to pull an upset victory over Florida. (Which might even start to heal some wounds from 2006 and 2007…slightly.)
About the Author
Written by Josh Lehmer
2009 UCLA graduate. Worked at NBC-Los Angeles from 2008-2009, then as ESPN Production Assistant. Fan of the UCLA Bruins, Lakers, Angels, Ducks.